I was 16, a junior at Reedley High School in Reedley, California, dead center in the small farm patchwork of the San Joaquin Valley. We had Finnish farms, Okie farms, Mennonite farms, Mexican farms, Japanese farms, Russian farms, Armenian farms - people came from all over the world to turn plain old dirt into a livelihood. The work was so hard that public conflict between groups was rare, and real scandals were never, ever said out loud.
"Hashtag MeToo," by Kris Holmes
I was a good student and was offered the chance to take one college level class at Reedley Community College, right down the road from my high school. I chose to take an English class taught by Charles "Gus" Garrigus, the Poet Laureate of the State of California. As far as I knew, William Saroyan and Gus Garrigus were the two most famous writers from Fresno County. Now I had the grand opportunity to study with one of them!
However, both of my counselors advised me not to take the class. They said, “Garrigus never gives A’s. You’ll ruin your GPA.” And, “He has a couch in his office.” I understood the part about GPA, though I couldn't foresee what a good GPA could get me, but the couch reference was way over the head of a good Baptist girl like me. What’s wrong with a couch? Surely he just wants his visitors to be comfortable.
I ought to have asked myself why the newly appointed Poet Laureate of the State of California was teaching Freshman English at a school like Reedley Community College. Couldn't he find a teaching position at a prestigious University of California campus? It didn't occur to me that maybe that couch had been on a few other campuses already.
My classmate Ray Yamaguchi, the bright, stocky son of a Japanese farming family, also chose Mr. Garrigus’s class when offered the same opportunity. His counselors had no objection - I assumed because Ray had already gotten a few B's and was headed for Fresno State. Ray was the best friend of the boy I liked, Jeff Lowen. I had never even been alone in a room with Jeff - his parents were Mennonites, just as strict as Baptists.
Ray and I arranged to meet outside our high school Art Building two mornings a week and walk over to Mr. Garrigus’s class together, about a 15 minute walk. Ray had impeccable manners but an embarrassing giggle. He always looked both ways before signaling to me that it was safe to cross Reedley Avenue, though there were hardly ever any cars. Ray always opened the door to Mr. Garrigus's classroom for me, sat right behind me and waited by the door at the end of class so we could walk back together.
Ray and I talked as we walked, mostly about our studies and farming topics - my parents were farmers, too. Japanese farmers were respected in our town because they managed to eke out a living for a whole family on 3 acres while most local farmers couldn’t make a "go of it" on 20 acres. Ray and I discussed pruning techniques and dew points right along with the confusing Chemistry 2 quiz.
I tried to be impressed with Mr. Garrigus, but he seemed to be what my father would call "Not a hunting man," and my mother would call “a cow’s hind end." I told my mother and father about the couch in Mr. Garrigus's office, but they didn't see anything wrong with that. They were Baptists, too.
One of Mr. Garrigus's early assignments was to write a paper on “The Difference Between Love and Friendship.” The way he said the word “loooove” made me nervous. I wrote my paper about my best girlfriend, Winnie Buxman, and how I loved her because of the way her mocking laughter could punch a hole right through any problem I had. Mr. Garrigus read my paper to the whole class before handing it back to me. I was embarrassed. My friend Ansa Aalto was also in our class, and she knew Winnie well. She was the plain daughter of a stern Finnish family, lived a few farms over from ours and had gone to school with me and Winnie all our lives. Ansa was a very serious student at Reedley High. But her Finnish family forbade her to go away for college because they had 60 acres of raisin grapes and needed help with the harvest. She was stuck at Reedley Community College until marriage.
Mr. Garrigus gave me an A- on that paper and wrote a note at the top, "You are very confused here. Need to discuss." I didn't want to discuss my paper about "loooove" with him; I laughed about his comment with Winnie and my other girlfriends while we walked to our classes together eating Hilaria De Silva's grandma's Mexican sweet buns. For some reason we all did not quite understand, laughing at Mr. Garrigus felt great, like telling strangers we were from Carnaby Street or getting a sleeve sewn in just right - we all sewed all of our own clothes. Idiotic squeals of "loooove" rang through the hallways of Reedley High for weeks.
Toward the end of the semester Ray Yamaguchi and I waited outside the locked classroom door for Mr. Garrigus’s class to begin. Like all farm children, we were always early. To be a mere five minutes early was already late, so we were there fifteen minutes early to every class and of course we were never absent. Mr. Garrigus finally showed up with his key, waved his arms around and shouted rapturously about the beauty of the parched hills outside of town and quoted the Transcendentalists on wild fruit. Ray looked at me funny because we had just been talking about our local ditch tender, Mr. Coombs, who was having mental lapses after the rattler bit him in the face. Mr. Coombs dispensed allotments of water from the labyrinth of irrigation ditches in our district. He was distantly related to my mother. Ray and I both knew those dried up hills would never grow fruit trees, wild or cultivated, until Mr. Coombs got back to normal.
But this Transcendentalist quote got my attention for the first time in Mr. Garrigus's class. I was already a Thoreau freak. My favorite high school teacher, Mr. Jenkins, had us read Walden that year, and I had been entranced. During Mr. Garrigus's class that day, I decided I would ask him about the Transcendentalists, whom he seemed to know so much about. After the other students left class, I approached Mr. Garrigus at his podium and earnestly asked him for titles of books on Transcendentalism. I pulled out my notebook and pencil. Mr. Garrigus calmly looked me in the face. “Oh, little Kris. . . ” he said. I didn’t even know that he remembered my name and I suddenly wished he hadn't. “Look at that pretty little face," Mr. Garrigus continued as he bent a little closer. I tried to say something smart, hoping that would get him back on my topic. “So where can I find a list of the members?” I asked.
Mr. Garrigus ignored my question, continued to stare at me with his watery eyes and said, “So many, many men are going to enjoy that pretty little face and that pretty little body of yours.”
I just wanted to know if Louisa May Alcott counted. Now I was genuinely scared and pretty sure I wasn't going to get any more information about the Transcendentalists. Mr. Garrigus continued to stare at me and reached his hands out to touch the pretty little face, which now surely looked panicked. Maybe he liked that.
But Mr. Garrigus, did not know two things about me.
One, I came from a family of long grudges, hot tempers and loaded guns. My father had taught me to shoot a rifle when I was only seven years old and his instructions were, "Don't get in a conversation, Honey, just aim for his you-know-what and pull the trigger." So I wasn't afraid to whirl away from Mr. Garrigus's groping hands and head for the door without a saying a single word.
And two, Ray Yamaguchi waited at the doorway of the classroom like a totem pole and would have stood beside that door until sunset before he would have let me walk the mean streets of Reedley, California alone. Ray stiffly pushed the door open while I darted out and Mr. Garrigus stood empty handed behind his podium.
I clutched my books to my chest and giggled along with Ray as we walked back to Reedley High School; back to our best friends Jeff and Winnie, back to Mr. Jenkins's class and back to our mothers's comforting after-school snacks - chocolate gravy and biscuits for me, umeboshi plums and rice for Ray.
For the rest of the semester, I darted up from my seat at the end of Mr. Garrigus's class the way our hens jumped away from the roosters. I couldn't wait for the semester to be over and then I went back to Mr. Jenkins's class where we read new authors and made fun of them, much to Mr. Jenkins's amusement. We read Le Petit Prince in French because Mr. Jenkins gave up his free period to teach us an advanced French class, which he thought would look good on our college applications.
I never saw that infamous couch, but Garrigus made use of it, I heard later. The brilliant Sandy Sarkisian, a schoolmate of mine, was his lover - she told me this herself. Her father's 20 acres of peach trees got leaf curl and he didn't have enough money to send her to Stanford when she was admitted there, so she had to stay in Reedley. As Garrigus snuggled with her on his stained couch, he laughed cruelly at Sandy's real boyfriends and their clumsy attempts at love. But he did give her an A. He told people it was the first A he had ever given.
Louise Whitman was a few years behind me - her mother never let her cut her hair so it flowed behind her almost to the floor. She was also Garrigus's victim. Louise called me when I was home from college to tell me she had gotten an A from Garrigus - "The first A he ever gave!" - and the story of a long romantic walk in the hills with him. “He kissed me,” she revealed in a very dramatic whisper so her mother would not overhear. I told her that there were sweeter kisses waiting for her if she left home. But she was also stuck at Reedley Community College because her mother feared for her safety in a big city like Fresno.
Each of us had our reasons for not telling our families what was being said and done; that's why Garrigus chose us. Sandy Sarkesian knew her father wouldn't believe her story. Mr. Sarkesian attended meetings at a civic organization where Garrigus was the only man in the room who could recite Shakespeare from memory, a skill he liked to show off. Mr. Sarkesian, born in Armenia, didn't understand a word of the complicated English but was proud to be in the company of such a learned man. Mr. Sarkesian spent his days plowing, pruning, spraying, thinning and picking stunted peaches. If Louise Whitman's mother had heard about that kiss from Garrigus, her poor daughter would never again have been allowed to attend a college class - she'd have to stay home and help with the quilting. I feared that before I could get the words ". . . pretty little body" all the way out of my mouth, my father would already be down at the college with his rifle, aiming it at Garrigus's you-know-what and pulling the trigger. Those private liberal arts colleges I was applying to would never let me into their ivy-covered halls if they found out I had already had one poet laureate gut-shot.
Gus Garrigus clung to his Poet Laureate status until many years later. He was reviled by other poets in California who felt his appointment was political and that his poetry stank. I found some of Garrigus's poetry online. It was all about the sweeping vistas and brilliant sunlight of California with not a single line devoted to the string of young girls he had taken advantage of, or tried to. Weren't we worth a few metaphors?
Ray stayed in the area, got married, took over his family farm and makes a "go of it". Jeff went off to Stanford and became a professor some place in the Midwest. Winnie is a musician in the Bay Area. Sandy became a nurse and she volunteers at Planned Parenthood. Hilaria bakes Mexican sweet buns and makes sure her kids speak good Spanish. Ansa's family farm passed down to her lackluster brother but she helps out when raisin drying season starts. Louise still lives in Reedley, alone, and writes poetry. Mr. Jenkins passed away before I got to tell him what a magnificent gift he gave me in Thoreau, whose work I still read almost daily.
I ask myself what does all this mean? Not that I escaped Garrigus because I was a particularly strong or smart young girl. Not that Garrigus's victims were weak. They were just lonely and trapped by family obligations, by mothers worried about the wrong things, by peach trees with poor yields. What it means is that the good people in my young life saved me from a bad one.
I left Reedley for a fancy college far away on a big scholarship. Thanks to my perfect GPA - Gus Garrigus gave me an A and told everybody it was the first one he had ever given.
Kris Holmes is a typeface designer, an animator and a screenwriter. She was a recipient of a UCLA TFT Sloan Film Fellowship for her screenplay, Vavilov, about a Russian botanist imprisoned by Stalin.